But there was also a sense that RISD needed a president who could come to grips with broader shifts in the worlds of art, design, and business: art gone viral; iPod as triumph of aesthetics, as much as technology; designer as the new corporate hero.
And Merrill W. Sherman, president and CEO of Bank Rhode Island and chairman of the RISD Board of Directors, said Maeda articulated the new reality in intriguing fashion during an interview.
The candidate conjured an image of MIT prior to World War II — a geeky outpost soon to be transformed by an explosion of science and technology — and argued that RISD was on the cusp of something similar.
"That got us very excited," Sherman said. "That got our attention."
FROM TOFU TO TECH
The son of a Seattle tofu-maker, Maeda grew up with an education in craftsmanship and devotion to task: his father, a Japanese immigrant, worked from 1 am to 6 pm.
"No staff," Maeda said. "He was the machine who moved all the parts around."
Maeda would retain an appreciation for the handmade as he got older. But he built a life in academia, collecting bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and electrical engineering at MIT, a Ph.D. in design science at the more traditional University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan, and a master's of business administration at Arizona State University.
His early work in digital media design, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, still provokes a giddy response in the art world.
"Where John went early in his career, no one had been before," said Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. "His work is amazing, groundbreaking, exciting, game-changing — take your pick of overused adjectives, they're all true."
But Maeda, who became an MIT professor in 1996, has never been a full-throated technologist. His fourth book, The Laws of Simplicity, warns against piling new upon new just because we can. "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful," he wrote.
Comforting words, no doubt, at a place like RISD. But if Maeda's emphasis on the meaningful resonates, his commercial leanings can prove a bit jarring for the ascetic artist.
He has designed for Cartier, Philips, and Samsung. Crafted limited-edition sneakers for Reebok with names like Timetanium and Emoretion. Googlers can dress up their search boxes with a splotchy curl of Maeda color.
And during his final two years at MIT, he served as associate director of research for the school's Media Lab, managing relationships with more than 70 corporations for the fabled gadget house.
At RISD, Maeda has turned that commercial sensibility into a campus campaign for the "entrepreneurial artist," urging students to move beyond fears of "selling out" and imagine the workaday world as a site of creativity and possibility and sustenance.
That has played out, most visibly, in Maeda's efforts to expand on RISD's portfolio of corporate partnerships.
The Gap recently asked apparel students to reimagine a patch of cardigan sweaters, hanging the garments at a gallery in the company's flagship store in New York City and selling them all in a day.
A spring course brought together students from several disciplines to help Toshiba reclaim its design mojo.